Edward Nelson Woodruff shaped Peoria's reputation for the first half of the twentieth century, serving eleven non-consecutive terms as Peoria's mayor between 1903 and 1946. Known as "Ed," "E.N." or, behind his back, "Crooked Neck" because of a physical deformity, Mayor Woodruff was the consummate machine politician. From his unofficial headquarters, "The Bum Boat," a river cottage converted from the hull of a river boat, he and his associates formed their political strategies.
Charges of scandal riddled Woodruff's administrations, but his record for extensive public improvements helped him maintain wide popularity. He believed every community contained a certain amount of vice. Under some measure of municipal regulation those activities could pay for city enhancement. Supporters believed Woodruff's leadership produced a safe, solvent Peoria, operated with pragmatic efficiency. At the same time, critics decried what they saw as the damage incurred in the lives of the citizenry as a result of political corruption, organized crime, gambling, and declining morals.
Under Woodruff's policies, the city became known as "Roaring Peoria." Three "red light" districts operated openly, and gambling joints were the most common downtown establishment. In 1956, the Journal Star referred to "Old Peoria" with the headline, "As Wide Open as the Gateway to Hell." The famous Shelton Gang moved from East St. Louis to Peoria in the 1930s and made it the queen city of their extensive gambling enterprises.
Woodruff's long public career ended with his retirement in 1946 and the election of reform mayor Carl O. Triebel. By this time, city services had deteriorated, and the public was fed up with Woodruff's "underworld pets." At the time of his death on December 22, 1947, the brawling river town over which he had presided was coming to its own end as well.
-Submitted by Roy A. Roberts